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UGANDA: Abstinence Clashes With Reality When Women Are Powerless

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, May 15 2006 (IPS) - Tens of thousands of Ugandan schoolchildren have enrolled in ‘True Love Waits’ clubs that promote sexual abstinence as the way to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Each student member has pledged “commitment to God, myself, my family, my country, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually pure until the day I give myself only to my marriage partner in a convenient marriage relationship.”

The clubs, at schools in and around the Ugandan capital, Kampala, were launched by Family Life Network: a local faith-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that seeks to “raise the moral fibre of Ugandan society through the family”. Those who take the vow are issued “abstinence commitment cards”.

Executive director Stephen Langa says an estimated 13,000 secondary schoolchildren (aged 13-20) have signed up in Kampala alone in one year.

Uganda was among the world’s HIV/AIDS hot spots in the 1980s and ’90s. But it scripted a remarkable turnaround with a strategy called ABC – or abstinence, be faithful or use a condom.

From over 20 percent at the start of the ’90s, HIV prevalence has dropped to five percent today, which according to experts was the result of the government’s bold support for a safe sex policy that promoted condom use.

However, the condom social marketing strategy changed dramatically last year – emphasising sexual abstinence, with condom use messages being directed at high-risk groups.

“As a feminist, I strongly think the abstinence programme doesn’t take into consideration the reality in the country, which is that women’s sexuality is controlled by men,” said Salome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe, coordinator of the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET).

“How will a woman abstain if she doesn’t even control her body? (If) she doesn’t decide when, where, how and with whom to have sex?” she asked.

“Women in Uganda have not yet been empowered to make decisions concerning their sexuality – to be able to deny sex…Women here aren’t allowed to talk about sex,” Kimbugwe added, in an interview with IPS.

Cultural practices also reinforce patriarchy.

In central and eastern Uganda, it is mandatory that sengas (maternal aunts who teach teenagers sexual techniques) train girls as young as 13 to remain submissive at all times.

Women who were interviewed by IPS expressed their helplessness.

“Abstain from sex?” asked a surprised Ida Nakabugo, a 23-year-old resident of Mengo, one of the suburbs in Kampala. “How can I do that? My husband would beat me up and chase me out of the house.”

Also a mother of three, she was of the firm belief that “all men cheat” in marriage, and expose their wives to the HI-virus.

“But what can you do? He is your husband. Those (HIV infections) are some of the risks we take in marriage. My greatest worry is for my children,” she lamented.

Adams Ochaya, a third year student at Makerere University observed: “You cannot talk about abstinence when poverty is still around. People are poor, and a woman might not say no to sex if she thinks she can get something out of it.”

Ochaya was referring to the phenomenon of “sugar daddies” that is relatively common in Uganda, where a young woman willingly has a long-term sexual relationship with an older man who gives her money and material goods in exchange.

Gender equity and women’s empowerment is goal number three of the Millennium Development Goals. According to the latest UNDP ‘Country Progress Report on MDGs’ (2003), women are disadvantaged by domestic chores, early marriage and pregnancy.

Poverty, culture and religion dictate that Ugandan parents still marry off children before they turn 18.

“I think we should be providing women and girls more choice to make decisions that concern them. Unfortunately, abstinence doesn’t enable women and girls to make decisions,” says UWONET’s Kimbugwe.

Last year, activists urged the government to enact the long pending Domestic Relations Bill (DRB) and the Sexual Offences Bill. The first addresses polygamy, bride price, cohabitation, marital rape, and female genital mutilation.

In June 2005, the New York-based Human Rights Watch also urged the Ugandan parliament to debate the DRB. Its provision on “marital rape in particular, is exactly the type of reform that anyone who cares about stopping HIV/AIDS and promoting women’s rights should support,” the report stated.

“Having languished in parliament for more than a decade, it is time for action on the DRB.”

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